Twisted tree of life award #6: Scientific American Origins piece for dissing microbes

There is an interesting series of mini articles in the August 2010 Scientific American tracing the origins of various concepts and things: Origins: Going Back to Where the Story Really Starts: Scientific American
Not open access mind you, but if you have a subscription it is worth checking out. They track the origins of the following:

  • swiss cheese
  • paternal child care
  • computer viruses
  • animation
  • sexual reproduction
  • malaria
  • fireworks
  • barbed wire
  • hand washing in hospitals
  • human morality
  • electric cars
  • the influenza virus
  • wheeled vehicles
  • black holes
  • zero
  • biodiversity
  • noodles
Many of the discussions are interesting.  Some are a bit trite.  But that is not what I am here to report on.  I am here to complain about one aspects of the article series: too much emphasis on humans and multicellular organisms as “higher” creatures.  There are various subtle phrases here and there that I did not like too much but the parts that really grate on me are the two below:
  • In the article on biodiversity Melinda Moyer discusses the remarkable possibility that single celled creatures might have in fact had some diversity in them “Today we think of biodiversity in terms of multicellular life, but flowering plants and animals didn’t arrive until relatively recently” she writes.  And ends with “It is no comfort to know that the worst catastrophe would still preserve some biodiversity — even if only for the lowly cell.
  • In the mini article on sex, Brendan Borrell writes “The truth is, nobody really knows why people — and other animals, plants and fungi — prefer sex to, say, budding.”  This of course leaves out all the other eukaryotes that are not plants, animals and fungi that have sex.  
And though these are certainly subtle small issues, I feel that Scientific American should do better.  So for directly and indirectly dissing the microbes on the planet – I am giving them my coveted Twisted Tree of Life Award #6.  Previous winners are listed below:

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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